Novak Djokovic has been roundly criticised for showing his frustrations on court at the Olympics, but surely we must forgive our greats their flaws?
As Novak Djokovic walked onto the court for his Olympics bronze medal match against Pablo Carreno Busta, you could just tell he wasn’t his usual self.
Less than 24 hours earlier the ‘Golden Slam’ was gone, and with it his best chance of winning an elusive Olympics gold medal.
It was no surprise, of course. After losing to Zverev in the semi-final, Djokovic openly admitted to the press that he ‘felt terrible.’ He’s not exactly someone to not pick his words carefully either. For anything else anyone believes Djokovic to be, what we can surely all agree on is that he is honest. In fact, some might say, with justification, that he is often too honest with the press for his own good.
With that in mind, was there any real surprise at seeing Djokovic succumb to frustration against Carreno Busta? Seems to me that whichever way you look at it, there must have been a degree of expectation there.
Not would there have been any surprise anywhere at the near total condemnation of Djokovic for the incidents that saw him toss a racquet into an empty stand or smash another. If there is one thing we can all rely on in tennis, it is a media pile-on whenever Novak Djokovic makes a mis-step.
Whether or not that is fair is another matter entirely. The Daily Star headline of ‘Moment Novak Djokovic hurls racquet into stands months after hitting lineswoman with ball’ is a particularly stark example of how the press dictate the narrative of Djokovic being the bad guy. It was a completely empty stand and the US Open incident was an accident, but that doesn’t suit the apparently agreed-upon narrative.
Of course, that is not to say that Djokovic was right to express his frustration like he did. Indeed, he has admitted that himself, apologised, and owned it.
"It's not nice of course but it's part of, I guess, who I am,” he said after the match. “I don't like doing these things.
“I'm sorry for sending this kind of message but we're all human beings and sometimes it's difficult to control your emotions."
Strangely, the apology was not as well covered as the outrage.
What is particularly difficult to reconcile, though, is that the same press who have picked up and are championing the current mental health debate in sport are also leading the vilification of Djokovic.
Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Ben Stokes have all recently raised the issue of the mental stresses sportspeople are subjected to and the challenges they present. They were joined by England footballer Tyrone Mings this week as he admitted he needed to see a therapist during Euro 2020.
That debate is long overdue, and it’s one we welcome, but it’s no good championing those raising awareness and then picking and choosing to whom we want to show understanding.
Djokovic has not openly discussed his mental health beyond saying he recognises pressure as a privilege and he does his best to cope with it.
How, though, could Djokovic not be facing some serious mental challenges right now? He is undertaking a herculean task of trying to create history: First the Golden Slam, and soon the calendar slam. Add to that the expectations of a nation in an Olympics Games, all being attempted whilst exiled from his family, in the world’s spotlight, and in the middle of a global pandemic.
And yet, people demand pitch perfect mental application and are then, when he competes, seemingly happy to rejoice in his struggles – all while all-but canonising other athletes under who are refusing to even try to compete under similar pressures.
The real crux of the matter here, though, is not some sudden realisation that Djokovic is not perfect, but why are so many stubbornly resolved to never forgiving him his flaws?
Show us a great from any sport you care to mention, or any other section of society for that matter, and we will show you a flawed genius. Every superhero has their kryptonite, and if they didn’t we wouldn’t care about them. Indeed, greatness is not greatness at all without flaws to overcome to achieve it.
Djokovic does have some troubles controlling his frustration on the court. We have all seen it and he has admitted it himself.
The difference appears to be that, for our other sporting greats, we dismiss the flaw and define them by their greatness. With Djokovic, too many want to dismiss the greatness and define him by his flaw.
In that sense, the stink of double standard has merely persisted with what happened at the Olympics, but in vilifying him for a mental flaw under pressure whilst championing an era of raised awareness of mental health, that double standard has developed into a full-on stench.
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